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I traveled the American South looking for a way to solve racial divisions

“Talent is equally distributed but opportunity is not.”

Those are the words that stuck with me most, spoken by a young, black teenager at a program called AMPED in Louisville, Kentucky, this past spring. So simple, and yet, so prophetic. After traveling through the South for much of the past year, I can say it’s clear it’s also very true.

My E Pluribus Unum team and I have gone to 28 communities in 13 Southern states, speaking with over 800 people from all walks of life to learn firsthand what unites us and where we remain divided.

On our journey, we saw how deft local leaders are able to help residents reach common ground. We met countless angels among us who are doing the hard work of lifting others up and moving them forward. And we found that while tremendous challenges remain in most Southern communities, people of all races and walks of life share a sense of pride in their city and in being southern.

We traveled off the beaten path in central Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta but also went to Houston, Miami and Charlotte. And while each place we visited was unique and our discussions were nuanced, our findings were remarkably consistent in one way.

It was clear that we have been, and in many ways remain, divided by design.

Today, we see this in the racial inequities that continue in neighborhoods, housing, schools, healthcare, voting precincts, public transit, banks, and at every step of the criminal justice system. And if we do not reckon soon with our past, we face a future of even greater fissures and failures.

Many don’t understand history

One of the major challenges is that many white people lack an understanding of the scale of racism in America, including our racial history and how it still permeates today’s institutions. As a result, racism is often too narrowly defined as overt individual actions rather than systemic injustices. There is very little recognition among white Southerners that the playing field has been tilted toward them in a way that has provided significant socioeconomic advantages and privilege over the course of generations.

Too often, individual stories of “making it” are lifted up (i.e. President Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey) without sufficient attention paid to the structural barriers that people in marginalized groups must overcome to be successful. In a survey of 1,800 Southern residents following our travels, most white respondents disagree that slavery’s legacy and institutional racism has an impact on black residents’ economic conditions today. Most black respondents, on the other hand, report that they have experienced discrimination because of the color of their skin, and still feel the systemic biases and obstacles resulting from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation across the South. As one black male said in Jackson, Mississippi, “I can’t think of a way that race has not impacted my experience. It’s either greeted me at the front door, or greeted me on the way out.”

The ‘Who you know’ economy

We heard some commonalities and some differences about the economy. People of all races often talked about the unfair influence of the “who you know” economy. Our interviewees described how much a good job means to an individual, a family, and a community. Even where a community’s economy was doing well, interviewees discussed the unintended consequences of having to work multiple jobs to get by. Many black residents also recounted experiences of employment discrimination. Their experiences suggest that people of color and low-income individuals in professional settings risk being “tokenized” and often face overt racial or class discrimination at work. One black male in Richmond noted, “You can go get your Master’s or get your PhD, but at the end of the day, it kinda is now all of who you know.

Culture, arts and sports bring people together

In nearly every town we visited, we asked what brings their community together. Almost universally among respondents — white, black, urban and rural — community cultural events such as sports, arts and festivals came up. As one white male in Mississippi noted, “If you are talking about diversity coming together, there’s still not a lot of that happening unless you’re talking about game day football, basically. High school football is still a great time.”

Our research suggests there is a path to a more prosperous future for all groups across the South, but it will require serious efforts to expose each group to the lived experiences of others in their own communities. This recognition and empathy represents the first step in overcoming barriers that are rooted in hundreds of years of racial division.

Diversity is a strength

Based on this data, I have hope for this work and for our country. Despite the major differences in personal experience and perceptions among different racial groups, it is particularly striking that all three racial groups have similar views on the importance of equity, and they largely share a common belief that diversity strengthens a community more than it divides it. Ninety-six percent of black respondents and 93 percent of both white and Latino respondents agree that, “in order for America to reach its full potential, all Americans regardless of race, must have equal rights, the same economic opportunities, and the same access to quality education.”

Through the work of E Pluribus Unum, my hopes are that in the national public discourse and conversations in our communities, issues of race and class will be discussed in more nuanced and thoughtful ways that do not exacerbate social divides but rather build common ground. That leaders, at all levels, will set new, ambitious priorities and enact substantial changes in policy to redesign institutions and support more equitable communities. And that all people will have a deeper understanding of systemic racism and the ways in which they can act on issues of racial and economic equity every day.

Remaining true to our founding principles, we must act as one nation, not two; and be indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not just some. We can break down the barriers that have divided us by design.

In taking this charge, we will ultimately prove our American motto, “E pluribus unum” — “out of many, one” — and we will be better for it.

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